Ocean Motion

Breaking waves (Department of Mathmatics, University of Glasgow)

I've been spending these autumn days along the Gulf of Mexico in the Florida Panhandle. Here the high dunes, truncated now by condos built on their ridges, drop precipitously to the white sand beach below. And beyond lies the source of our planet's ultimate rhythmical beat--the endless and resonant surge of the sea.

A glimpse of the ocean in a certain light, a forest’s moist interior, or a distant mountain under snow, often brings back to me stirring passages in a book by a favorite author. In a recent blog I quoted from one of those books, Henry Beston’s The Outermost House. Beston spent a year during the late 1920s living alone, Thoreau-like, in a little house on the Great Beach of Cape Cod, writing about its birds, gales, and tides. As I watch the surf roll in here on another kind of beach, I’m continually reminded of Beston’s meditations on ocean waves. A naturalist and a poet, he detected the individual wave as an illusion, pointing out that “the distant water has not left its place in ocean to advance upon me, but only a force shaped in water, a bodiless pulse, a vibration.”

Wind, blowing over water, is the creator of most waves. But water drops themselves don’t advance with the wave; only the triggered vibration moves on. Beston described this pure force originating somewhere at sea, perhaps a thousand miles from where he is standing on a Cape Cod dune. This force is now traveling like a pulse in living flesh, “forever embodying itself in a succession of watery shapes which vanish in its passing.” His outer eye sees the individual wave, at first in the distance, then steadily approaching closer to shore. He follows what seems to be an individual mass of water, unchanging in size or shape. But Beston’s inner eye remains aware of the mix of reality and illusion.

“All the while the original beat has taken on a flowing series of liquid bodies,” he wrote later, “bodies so alike, so much the same, that our eye will individualize them and follow them in-the third wave, we say, or the second wave behind the great wave.”

In a feat of precise observation and eloquent prose, he described the track of this liquid pulse, affected near land by the shallow ocean floor as well as by random winds, advancing on the beach under a plume of spindrift. It confronts our continent, and crashes. The powerful arcing wave is simply a swirl of foaming water now, slipping back down the beach’s incline, “to become a body to another beat, and to be again flung down.”

Writers long dead-Beston, Thoreau, Rachel Carson-remain good company on a day’s exploration of nature’s most theatrical occasions.

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